Sunscreen or Insect Repellent: Which Goes On First?

If you're applying sunscreen but you also want to protect yourself from bugs and apply insect repellent, which do you apply first for the most effective protection?


Woman applying insect repellent on child Photo © Getty Images/Imgorthand

It’s a conundrum that might not be familiar to everyone when they’re traveling, adventuring and visiting hot places: what comes first, sunscreen or bug spray?

It’s not particularly common knowledge, but there are implications in mixing the two. You need to be sun safe and protect yourself from nasty nips from mosquitoes, ticks and the like, but it is vital to make sure you are using your protection products correctly.

Studies have shown that sunscreen’s efficiency drops by about 30 percent when used alongside insect repellents containing diethyltoluamide or DEET. This is probably because sunscreen forms a protective layer on the skin which can be disrupted or effectively thinned by the properties of insect repellent.

It has also been suggested that smell is an important part of how a repellent functions, so masking it with sunscreen could weaken its power. But there appears to be an easy solution. Leaving a short gap between the application of both products means they will work more effectively without compromising each other.

Sunscreen or bug spray first?

Sunscreen always comes first. That way it has a chance to properly absorb into the skin before you bring in the bug spray. In any case, regardless of insect repellents, sunscreen of at least SPF15 or higher should be liberally applied 30 minutes before sun exposure to make sure it properly sinks into the skin. It also needs to be reapplied every two hours, especially if you’re swimming or are active or in a very hot or humid climate and sweating a lot.

After the initial application of sunscreen, insect repellent should be applied about 10-20 minutes later. (Incidentally, the same goes for moisturizers and make-up.)

What about combined insect repellents and sunscreens?

No, is the answer here. Despite the availability of joint products, it’s a tricky combination. Sunscreen needs to be reapplied more frequently than the repellent, and over-applying the repellent could be unsafe due to toxicity. It’s for this reason that combined sunscreens and repellents aren’t a good idea. Always follow the instructions on product labels.

How to correctly apply sunscreen

For sun protection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises applying a thick layer of sunscreen on all exposed areas and getting help for those awkward, hard-to-reach bits like your back and shoulders. You should also combine your sunscreen with other tactics to protect yourself from the sun, such as using the shade, wearing long-sleeved T-shirts and pants or beach cover-ups, and sporting a hat and sunnies.

How to correctly apply insect repellent

The CDC recommends the following:

  • Always follow the directions on the label
  • Spray or rub the insect repellent onto skin not covered by clothes – don’t use under clothing
  • Heavy use of insect repellent is not necessary
  • Do not spray insect repellents directly on your face – spray it onto your hands first and then pat it onto your face. Do not put it near your eyes or mouth
  • After returning indoors, wash the insect repellent off your skin with soap and water. Wash any clothes you treat with repellent before wearing them again
  • Do not use on babies under two months old. For children, do not use anything stronger than 30% DEET.

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